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A special Santa brings Christmas to Hermiston Tree Lighting Celebration

A special Santa brings Christmas to Hermiston Tree Lighting Celebration

Santa Claus beamed as he made his way through the crowd during Hermiston’s annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony Dec. 2.

John Perkins, sporting his own white beard and wearing a traditional red suit, looked the very image of a jolly old elf. But he struggled to be there.

With the aid of a red-and-white-striped cane, he took the event stage. Santa flipped a switch, the lights on the large tree in the center of town began to glow, and the crowd cheered.

Perkins, 70, might not turn those lights on next season. He has stage four pancreatic cancer.

Fulfilling Christmas duties

After receiving more applause, Father Christmas made his way to a sleigh near the tree, where a line of families waited. He welcomed child after child, hearing their Christmas wishes and offering them candy canes and kind words.

One Hermiston family gave testament to the magnetism of this Santa. Alberto Munoz and Marina Longoria said this was the first time their son, Tito, 3, saw Santa in person, and they liked this one.

“It was great, especially after COVID,” Munoz said.

Like many other people in the crowd, they were enjoying the normalcy of a regular event. Last year, the annual tree lighting was broadcast for viewers online, not in person.

Tito, a fan of the cartoon “The Loud House,” told Santa he hoped to get presents related to the show, his parents said. After seeing Santa, Tito said he liked Santa and his white beard.

Many more children had similar positive experiences with Saint Nick as they, too, met him and discussed their Christmas wish list. Santa continued to smile, but he soon grew tired. Helped to his feet, he was led gingerly to a seat in a nearby church to rest. At 6:40 p.m., he started his break. By the time he was able to return, however, the few people who remained had left. Santa was free to go.

On his way out, he spoke about his enjoyment of this celebration.

The children made him laugh, he said, and they caused him to remember his own childhood. One boy, Perkins said, asked for a train, and Santa was not sure if the youngster wanted a toy train or a life-sized one. Either way, he said, it made him think of his own boyhood and the train his parents gave him.

Perkins, who had met several dozen children up to the point of his break that night, said getting tired was not ordinary for him. In years past, when he had played Santa, he had more endurance, he added.

“I could go hours,” he said.

Not this time. Assisted by another person, he walked carefully to his wife, who was waiting for him in their car. Still smiling, he wished children “Merry Christmas” as he walked away.

Becoming Santa

Perkins picked up the mantle of Santa 13 years ago to honor his father-in-law, Roy Otis, a man who had been Santa but died. His wife, Jeanne Perkins, made him the costume he still wears. It is a suit made with love, he said.

Other trademarks of the role were his prior to becoming Santa. The white hairs, he said, started coming in while he was a high school student, and the beard was fully flushed out before he ever put on the Santa outfit.

Playing Santa through the years, he has toured the region, appearing in and around Hermiston, even going to Walla Walla. This was his first appearance at the Hermiston tree lighting. Also, the role has crept into his daily life, he said, as children recognize him as Santa year-round.

He said people have a special reaction to Santa Claus. The character, Perkins said, draws people together in a spirit of love. Santa makes them think of generosity, togetherness and the need for unity.

The diagnosis

He first noticed something wrong in March, when he saw a bruise on his belly, he said. It grew, and so he saw a doctor.

After tests, he learned he had stage four pancreatic cancer, he said.

He admitted he did not respond well. He cried, and he initially felt weak for having done so. It was only later he recognized there was no reason to feel bad about shedding tears.

His biggest worry was that his treatment would lower his resistance to germs, he said, and he would feel sick as a result of portraying Santa and seeing children. Still, he said his doctor approved of being Santa. Perkins said he told his doctor he wanted to “go out and have fun,” and the doctor said it would be fine.

 “I can’t say I’m ready for everything that is going to happen, but I can say, through my faith in Jesus Christ, I believe in everything that’s going to happen. And it’s not because my time is ending. That’s not what it’s about, it’s about me being able to give the rest of my life in memory, and do it like a man,” Perkins said.

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